Friday, November 15, 2013

Why Is Debating Morality With Theists So Fun? (Hint: Because They're Wrong)

Like Christopher Hitchens, I'm in love with debate, and debating morality with theists is probably one of my favorite debate topics. The reason why I enjoy that debate so much is because I know they're simply wrong on about it. Case in point, theists must simply assert that god is identical to "the good" or moral perfection itself but cannot justify whether god's goodness comes logically prior to any attributes that might constitute god's goodness or not.

Now perhaps I might not be writing here anything that I haven't already done before on numerous other posts, but since the moral debate is one atheists will find themselves confronted with time and time again, it might be worth repeating. When a theists asserts that god is identical to moral perfection he or she isn't doing anything other than playing word games. I can simply define the word "God" as being a synonym of goodness, but I certainly haven't demonstrated that an actual being exists that is ontologically identical with goodness, let alone been able to conflate that being to the deity of a particular religion. All I've done is played words games with you and claimed victory (ha ha!). But it's a premature calculation.

Seriously though, for any theist who does this, the next trick up their sleeve (if they see you're not convinced) is going to be something like, "It is impossible for God to be evil or command something evil, like rape, because God's intrinsic nature is that of moral perfection. God is necessarily morally perfect." The theist here is trying to get all philosophical on your ass: God is necessarily perfect because he can't be any other way. But I still find it hard to palate the idea of how the theist can know or can determine what a perfect moral being is without appealing to some standard that exists independently of such a being. Otherwise, if the being itself is what determines moral perfection, then is it not the case that one can appeal to the logic that what ever that being does or commands is perfectly moral by definition, no matter what that is? How do we determine that god is morally perfect? If god is simply just being defined as such, then following this line of reasoning allows Islamic fundamentalists to stone to death adulterers and jail/execute blasphemers - hardly something we in the West would consider moral.

So aside from merely defining god into perfection, which fails to establish anything other than an association of words, I require more evidence. A host of positive values can be attributed to god that the theist can say justifies god's goodness. They can even go a step further and say that those positive values are sourced in god. This is where the logical conclusion of the Euthyphro Dilemma comes into play. Things that are good are good for reasons - reasons that don't require appeal to a god*, so the theist must decide whether god is good logically prior to having those attributes or whether god is good because he has those attributes. This is a dilemma perhaps with greater force than the Euthyphro itself, and I don't think one can even create a third option to try to avoid its consequences. I've posed this dilemma to several theists and often all I get in return are circular arguments. For example, to say that those positive attributes are good because god is good and he has those attributes is viciously circular. The claim god is good would be rendered meaningless. This dilemma is why I'm confident the moral argument for god fails.

Corner a theist on this and you can expect to get assertions like this: "I *know* it is true. I'm not interested, in the context of the dilemma, in *showing* someone else it is true." So said a theist on his blog when we were discussing the options of the Euthyphro Dilemma. Since many theists essentially assert their deity is real, I suppose we can expect that they will do the same exact thing when the moral aspects of their deity are under question.

*I suspect that a theist might disagree with the statement that things that are good are good for reasons that don't require appeal to god. They might say that without god, nothing is morally good or bad, just socially advantageous or disadvantageous. William Lane Craig makes this argument all the time. To many divine command theorists, something can only be right or wrong if a competent authority says so. To do this the theist would have to bypass all the positive and negative effects of our moral behavior and their intentions, and simple appeal to what a deity said. In doing so they might have to admit that the commands of such a deity do not correspond to what positively or negatively affects us, a rather disturbing idea. But then they'd be saying that doing X is good because god said so and for no other reason, and we'd be back to the Euthyphro Dilemma all over again.


  1. Randy Everist:

    The way to resolve the dilemma, as many readers already know, is to postulate a third horn for the dilemma; namely, it is postulated that the good just is God’s nature.

    But what does it mean to claim that a being has a nature? A nature is a set of properties that the being possesses. We can now form a new Euthyphro-like dilemma: “Is God good because he has these properties? Or are these properties good because God has them?” And we are right back where we started.

    See Must There Be a Standard of Moral Goodness Apart from God? (pdf) by Wes Morriston:

    Is God good because he has these properties? Or are they good because God has them? If we take the former view, then God is not the ultimate standard of goodness. His properties are. Even if, per impossible, God did not exist, there would still be the (same) standard of goodness — viz., that complex of properties which together constitute God's moral nature. Anything having that set of properties would be morally good— whether or not God existed.

  2. Yes, there is no way out of the Euthyphro Dilemma, because all we have to do is reformulate it if the theist tries to weasel his way out of it. The positive attributes of god must be good independently of god's existence. Unfortunately Randy Everist doesn't like to debate, and he won't publish my comments on his blog. He just wants to assert that god is the source of all goodness, on faith, and then skate off into the darkness.

  3. Yes, this is why I don't like the moral argument with theists. The problem is that the argument is purely philosophical (in the bad sense, not the good sense), and the apologist simply declares "trilemma, eleventy!" and pronounces themselves correct. They are not correct, they are fools, but they think they've retained their dignity and the truth is most nobody else cares about what is, well, a philosophical debate. Which is a shame, because I think I love the Euthyphro more than any other thought in all of philosophy.

  4. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a great conversation starter that doesn't end well for the theist.



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